Tag Archives: Science

Mood Music: Feeling the Pain we Pledge to Alleviate , Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Aug

Caution 2

Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation but as a question.  Niels Bohr

Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part.  Hermann Broch

Just because someone knocks on the door doesn’t mean you have to open it. Ruta Sepetys

What good is speed without the ability to brake?  Nilesh Rathod

You don’t throw a compass overboard because the ocean is calm.  Matshona Dhliwayo

I dragged my mind away from that line of thought; there was nothing but quicksand and crocodiles down that path.  Melanie Casey

There are few occasions when I rise early on a Sunday to start writing these missives when I find something in the mass media that corresponds neatly to what I will shortly attempt to communicate.   Today’s Washington Post provided such an occasion, an article by Stanford Professor Jamil Zaki seeking to explain what he refers to as our “breathtakingly immoral” response to climate threats.  Zaki expands a line of argument that I have seen in other contexts making the case that our species is under siege from the recklessness of much of our behavior combined with what he calls our “shortsighted instincts,” the grave difficult we seem to have “scaling our emotions” to address the threats which may yet engulf us, threats that evoke less determination and more “compassion collapse” than are suited to our common survival, dismissing the real and metaphorical fires now burning largely out of control within and beyond the Amazon.

There is not much to disagree with here, save for the matter of our current, largely disengaged and discouraged, “mood” which such articles, clever though they may be, help to reinforce.   As science reduces the human condition, more and more, to instincts and algorithms, as we probe the collective limitations of our capacity for empathic response to a growing array of threats to our own and future generations, we are inadvertently creating justifications for turning our energies away from the world, cashing in and localizing what remains of our empathy for the sake of the smaller circle of current activities and events that we still seem able to impact.  Given the complexities of modern life to which we allude often –now to include Brazil indigenous who must find a way to cope with fires and smoke and the inevitable mining and cattle interests that are likely to follow — it is understandable, if dangerous, that so many are dropping out of the race to make our politics more compassionate, our climate policies more effective, our economics more equal, our rights more respected. If our emotional connections have, indeed, reached the limits of their instinctual bandwidth, why fight the feeling?

The “mood” inside the UN at times reflects a different kind of distancing.  On Friday, Security Council member Germany (with Peru and Kuwait) sponsored an Arria Formula event on accountability for the massive crimes perpetrated against the Myanmar Rohingya who now, 2 years on, languish in Cox’s Bazar and other nearby settings across the border in Bangladesh.  This was a most welcome event given the miseries of the displaced, the disingenuous gestures of Myanmar towards those seeking to return to their ancestral homes, and the well-documented mistakes by the UN to prevent the violence before it spiraled out of control and broker a “safe and dignified return” for those who wish for that.

As with so many other discussions of this type, the mood in the room didn’t fit the dire consequences of our failure to prevent.  The job of diplomats is to get along with each other, to keep the “windows open” if you will; even so, the laughter and back slapping before and after the event seemed (as it so often does) borderline scandalously inappropriate.  In between, the good briefings and statements by diplomats were serious but emotionally restrained, a far cry from the images I was receiving simultaneously on twitter from a Rohingya journalist (who shall remain unnamed) who has been documenting for us (and others) the misery, the anger, the insecurity, the frustration from two long years of displacement following an even longer period of discrimination and abuse. When the Arria meeting had concluded it was not clear what steps Council members were prepared to take.  It was time for lunch.   For the Rohingya it was probably time to find a bit of sleep and, perhaps foolishly, dare to dream of a return to homes and fields that might somehow have escaped utter destruction.

Some diplomats and even NGOs like me apparently have our own empathic limitations, brakes on our own ability to actually feel the abuses we seek to address, to practice solidarity while we discern the best paths forward for our own and (hopefully) generations to come.  Such deficits are ably examined by scientists, but I would be happy to argue (in another space) that we nonetheless retain capacities to set a more humane example, to fortify our emotional intelligence in ways that can keep us from having to “explain away” our apparent willingness to subsume urgent threats and needs under a veil constituted by genetics, consumerism, careerism and policy expediency.

In an adjacent UN conference room this past week, a group of scientists and policy wonks were taking up the task of creating forms of governance that can help us address threats to what is by far the largest ungoverned space on our planet, the open oceans and its marine biological diversity beyond national jurisdiction.   Delegates who are well versed regarding our current “wild west” approach to the open seas effectively chronicled the damage we have done from dumping and other forms of abuse, but also the ways in which this “common heritage” of humankind is now less and less able to combat climate change, preserve its still-unexplored biodiversity or supply nutrition to the vast millions living around its perimeters.  Delegates also discussed the support that needs to be shared if the peoples most affected by climate and ocean-related risks are able to hold the line on survival relative to a problem that most did little, in and of themselves, to create.

And the delegations invoked another principle, that of “precaution,” which is to say the idea that we actually give serious consideration to the potential effects and consequences of our policy preferences on people’s rights and well-being before proceeding to “help them”; that we consider how we are going to put out the fires before we light the fuse; that we consider how we are going to preserve primordial assets such as our oceans before we set out to despoil them, even in their deepest and most remote regions.

This principle is not to be equated with “caution” which has both instinctive and cultural references, keeping us out of danger, including the danger of being “judged” or socially rejected, but also preventing us from summoning the courage and determination needed to pull our species collectively back from the precipice we have propped ourselves on.

Some 33 years ago, the band Genesis released “Land of Confusion,” a song imploring my generation to  “set it right” but also noting how little love there seems be “going around” with which to energize that promise, to bond more deeply with what we presume to cherish.  Sadly, we’ve managed to make it “right” only for some while neglecting the discipline (and requisite training) that can make us better able to incarnate the love that can anticipate negative policy consequences; that is willing to ask hard, precautionary questions; that can drag ourselves away from the “quicksand and crocodiles” of our most toxic assumptions and excuses; that knows how to “speed up and brake” when appropriate; and that has the courage and wisdom to reach across the generations with compassion and responsibility.

All the current global confusion and ample scientific references to human limitations notwithstanding, none of these tasks are beyond our collective capacity.   None come easily, to say the least, but compared with the massive damage control now underway in most all global regions, none are without their obvious advantages to the health of our planet, to the trust which some have long forgotten to cultivate, and to our collective “mood” which is now alternately sour and distracted.

We retain options to “lengthen” our instincts, recalibrate our emotional lives, and avoid the “collapse of compassion.”  But we’ve apparently tossed our collective “compass” into what we mistakenly believed to be calm water and, as a consequence, we are running out of time and energy to make those options happen.

STEM Cells:   The UN seeks an Elusive Balance on Human Innovation, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jun

Medicine Bottle

If you are too careful, you are so occupied with being careful that you are sure to stumble over something. Gertrude Stein

A single decision can spawn a thousand others that were entirely unnecessary or it can bring peace to a thousand places we never knew existed. Craig Lounsbrough

Don’t sail out farther than you can row back.   Danish saying

This was an interesting week at the UN punctuated by important elections for the UN Security Council and for the president of the General Assembly.   The new Council members – Belgium, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa – will bring considerable policy savvy and expertise to the Council oval as well as well-crafted positions on how the Council can be reformed to more effectively serve the interest of the membership and more skilfully address peace and security challenges.

As for the incoming president of the General Assembly, we have high hopes for María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, currently Ecuador’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Our own twitter feed has been on overload all week as people reacted to the sound of a strong woman’s voice set to lead the UN’s most democratic chamber.  Ms. Espinosa Garcés, as has been noted often, is only the 4th woman to hold this post in the history of the UN.  But what excites us is the range and strength of her policy priorities – disarmament and indigenous rights, gender and environmental health, including ocean health.  She is well-positioned to continue the recent history of successful GA presidencies while keeping a watchful eye on challenges that now threaten a vibrant multilateralism.

In these and other policy matters, she has her work cut out for her.

Among the many policies elevated by the UN this week – from migration and criminal tribunals to counter-terror and the drive to end tuberculosis – the state of our environment took center stage. Of particular concern was the urgency of eliminating single use plastics that have created toxic islands larger than France in the middle of our oceans, endangering all marine life including (as noted in a side event) the birds that must rely on a now-plastic-infested and declining ocean bounty.

Former GA president Peter Thomson of Fiji is now heading the UN’s efforts on ocean policy and he held a series of meetings with diplomats and other stakeholders to promote a more urgent engagement with ocean health, including support for Law of the Sea treaty obligations and his own plans for a conference in 2020 to assess ocean-related progress.  Thomson, as per his reputation, did not mince words, noting that “we are losing the battle” on oceans, though at least now “we know we are losing” due to a series of dismal ocean indicators.  One can, he suggested, “plead indifference, but not ignorance” to the science that paints an uncertain future for human life as ocean life continues its own downward trajectory.

Later during one of his multiple engagements, Thomson suggested, much more hopefully, that we are all “ocean people” in this room, citing “snowballing commitments” to policies that can address an array of ocean related threats – desalination and depleted fish stocks, plastics pollution and commercial dumping – while we still have the opportunity to reverse conditions.

The question for us had something to do with ocean policy but more to do with the science which must direct such commitments, ensuring that remedial policy measures are correctly targeted, robust in their application, and sufficiently engaging of the widest range of global stakeholders.  As with other existential threats to our children’s future, we are long past the point where half-hearted, token gestures will reverse our current stable of “dismal indicators.”  For too long, we have ignored the scientific evidence of ocean decline.  But more than that, we have resisted the call to better understand the benefits and limitations of the scientific community. We have resisted allowing scientists to help create communities of learning in policy settings, in which global innovation and global ethics can combine to guarantee global health.

Ironically perhaps, as the state of ocean health was being debated in one UN conference room, the STI Forum (Science, Technology and Innovation) sponsored by the UN Economic and Social Council was taking place in another.  In the STI plenary meetings and side events, participants heard much about innovations that promise more accurate and comprehensive data to drive policy response on some of the crucial issues facing the planet.  Of particular note for us was the “integrated system” developed by the World Meteorological Association that seeks to ensure high-quality, real-time information on weather-related shifts and potential climate disasters necessary to accurate forecasting in a time of increasing climate volatility.

But much of what interested us at the STI is the interplay of those for whom technological innovation is now essential to our very being as a species and those who cast a wary eye at any innovation not attached to clear warning labels.  Indeed, the gap between these erstwhile “camps” seems to be widening a bit as more and more people place their bets on technology to solve global problems while others cringe at the increasing complexity of personal and institutional technology which is already running far apace of regulatory policies and structures of governance.  As a representative from Alibaba Group admitted, we are now “being split,” in part because we fail to recognize that all technological developments “are a two-edged sword,” a reassuring breeze in some instances, a tornado in others.

As someone probably more Luddite than acolyte, I have an innate sympathy with those with “stick up their noses” at the enticements of innovation that few actually seem to be asking for and that promise benefits as likely to increase inequalities as level them.   As Brazil urged this week, regarding this “4th Industrial Revolution,” we must “learn the lessons” from the 2nd and 3rd Industrial Revolutions.  Why are inequalities still so pervasive in this world?  In this “tech rich” (and tech-obsessed) age, how is it that so many people are still without toilets?  These are the questions that continue to preoccupy our office, even as our high regard for scientific inquiry remains unbroken.

There are important questions to ask regarding this seemingly widening gap, a gap in part driven by technological enthusiasm, in part driven by a neglect of growing global inequalities, in part driven by public disconnect from the science that can provide indicators of trouble at a moment when trouble can still be diverted.  With climate and ocean threats taking center stage, how do maintain the “culture” for scientific inquiry that keeps us creatively innovating but also mindfully regulating? How do we ensure that the regulation we endorse is robust and flexible enough to keep from “stumbling” over the next iterations of scientific advance?  And perhaps more relevant to the security policy community, how do we keep from running further and further behind the pace of technology for which “dual use” continues to communicate both the promise of progress and of existential threat?

On the table where I am writing sits a bottle of pills that I am “required” to take as part of my long-term recovery from my genetically-mandated heart surgery.  In many ways, these pills (and the complex surgery that preceded their use) represent a culminating moment in my personal interaction with science and technology, having been at least temporarily “cured” of a problem that apparently killed many of my ancestors, a cure that highlights the plight of many of my global contemporaries who, in this stunningly unequal world, do not have access to the high-tech, life-saving measures that I do.

This pill bottle, like many other of life’s affairs, comes attached to both a promise and a warning.   Take the pills as instructed and I am more likely to reap health benefits.  Take them otherwise and not only are the benefits threatened but other complications could ensue – including in this instance liver damage.  When medicines enter a complex organism such as the human body, it is essential  that we do our best to assess risk factors.  What can possibly go wrong here and how can we minimize adverse impacts?

The global community represents complexity on a scale that much more vast, and thus the responsibilities raised by our “ingestion” of technological innovation become more complex as well.  As the World Economic Forum’s Philbeck noted during the STI, we must “avoid language directed towards technology that either fears or romanticizes it.” Other speakers warned of the dangers of taking a passive stance towards technological innovation, noting that as science continues to move past conventional boundaries, we must ensure that any new resulting “tools” enhance sustainable development  rather than take us in another, less inclusive, less participatory direction.

As Philbeck also interjected, trust must be earned in the technological realm as in others, but trust must be grounded in our attentive awareness of potentials and pitfalls.  In an age where so many people are still denied access to the “fruits” of science and technology, where elites eagerly horde both the capacity and application of those “fruits,” and where regular folks increasingly demand the benefits of technology independent of any responsibility to assess its impacts and avert its addictions, we risk exacerbating a crisis of our own making.   We may, indeed, have already sailed further and faster on these technological “waters” than is in our best collective interest.

This is not the time for timidity or the excess caution that might cause us to stumble, to be sure, but it might be wise to slow down the pace of our sailing a bit and recalibrate our distance from the shore.





Inconvenient Truths: Spinning Obligations to our Planet and Each Other, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Apr


Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin. Barbara Kingsolver

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.  Flannery O’Connor

The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.  Lao Tzu

This was an often interesting and generally head-spinning week for the world and for the UN.  Alongside a bevy of unwelcome political and military tensions, one highlight for us was the scientific community (and supporters) taking the streets in support of facts, in part as an appeal to a society that too often believes what it wants to believe and prefers shiny branding and pious reassurances to the truths – about science, about the health of our planet, about ourselves — that disrupt our ambitions and inconvenience our personal schedules.

The marches were also an appeal to our political leaders who seem to believe that unless and until something is 100% settled (and much in science is not quite that), they are “free” to make up what they wish about our past and present, to carve whatever narrative they can use to convince people of things about which they would do better to be skeptical.  For too much of our leadership, truth more and more is about the capacity to convince based on pre-determined ideologies than about the weighted importance of evidence or the intrinsic value of curiosity – being open to new ideas, the next question, perspectives that can complete and enrich our own cognitive circles.

If we think we know everything that needs to be done, every lens that needs to be examined, every fact and challenge that needs to be integrated, we are probably too comfortable with small or incomplete perspectives; embracing half-measures when the recipe calls for a full portion, spouting stereotypical clichés when the times call for an honest disaggregation of the “truths” we espouse that might apply to some contexts in some measure but not to all contexts in all measure.

Despite our proliferating school degrees and professional certificates and across our political spectrum, we have seemingly never been so vulnerable to spin. As we are reminded on this World Book Day, we would all do well to read more and talk less, to think harder and argue softer.

While the science marches weren’t directed at the UN per se, we have plenty of our own “spin” in this space, officials too often embracing aspects of the truth that serve national (or bureaucratic) interests while ignoring elements that call for more flexible political or institutional positions. In the UN building as a whole, certainly in the Security Council, things unspoken are often more important than what is actually shared.  Delegations will often make perfectly valid but willfully incomplete contributions to policy, in more than a few instances hoping that the truth they convey will be enough to satisfy listeners, will distract people from all that is still needed if we are to complete the policy circle.

An example of this selectivity occurred this past Tuesday when US Ambassador Haley (serving as Council president for this month) introduced a Security Council discussion focused on “Human rights and prevention of armed conflict.” This was, as she noted, the first time that the Council had ever met to discuss as a stand-alone the “red flags” of human rights abuse that spill within and across national borders, a surprising if accurate claim to many (us included) who have long assumed (and pointed out) a consistent relationship linking human rights violations and the potential for armed violence.

Secretary-General Guterres was the primary briefer for the session. He restated his own personal commitment to work more closely with the Council on this and other issues, while also pointing out the “grave challenges” associated with efforts to reduce the “wounds of war.”   Guterres was clear, as Italy and other states were later in the afternoon, that the only way to address such wounds is to make war less likely. Thus attention to gross human rights violations — what France called the “sowing of hatred” — as a major contributing factor to armed conflict is therefore fully warranted.

But Guterres (and later Kazakhstan and Uruguay) also made plain the need to “depoliticize” both human rights and the related promotion of sustainable development.  It didn’t take long for this warning to be disregarded.   Amb. Haley herself used the occasion to lump together Cuba, Iran and the DPRK as human rights violators from which troika will arise “the next crisis.”  Shortly thereafter, the deputy foreign minister of Ukraine alleged Russia’s “phobia” on rights stemming in part from its military adventurism and occupation of Crimea.

Egypt was one of several states (including Russia) citing double standards and false interpretations lying at heart of our responses to many global issues.  They urged the Security Council to respect and work closely with other UN agencies (such as the Human Rights Council) specifically tasked with promoting human rights and –through the special rapporteurs, special procedures mandate holders, and direct examinations by the Human Rights Committee and other treaty bodies – working with states to improve their human rights performance.

In the end, the issue for the Council was not whether human rights should have a firm place in their deliberations.  As Sweden noted, there is no denying that rights violations are core contributors to social instability and violence; nor can we deny that our enduring “culture of impunity” and growing disregard for international law constitute major flaws in our peace and security architecture.   The question has to do with the proper role for the Council, a body that too often preempts effective action elsewhere in the global system and which too often exempts from criticism those very same Council members all too willing to point the finger beyond their own borders.

It was Ethiopia that seemed to offer the most concrete and sensible way forward, a way that combines receptivity to fact-finding from other UN colleagues; a pledge to support rather than undermine other relevant UN agencies; and attention to dimensions of “fairness” in the investigation and application of human rights concerns. In addition, Ethiopia urged what it called the “overdue” commitment of Council members to regular self-reflection and assessment regarding their mandated responsibilities, including the degree to which Council members uphold in their own practice the same Charter values they insist on for others.

Amb. Haley noted that there is “so much more to be done” in the Council on human rights, and at one level she is right.   But that “much more” is not about trying to control another core UN obligation, not about selectively and/or righteously beating up political adversaries for alleged abuses – as though any state is blameless on the rights scale. Rather it is about promoting and sharing the best information from across the UN system and beyond, ensuring that abuses can be identified and then addressed in their early stages as one means to head off conflicts whose resulting wounds are now far beyond our capacity to heal.

And also offering better protection to the vulnerable when our preventive efforts fail: Facts and information on the one hand; policy resolve and compassion on the other.

In the discussion’s aftermath, one of the most respected academic voices on Africa, Paul Williams, pointed out on twitter that the same person who chaired the Council meeting advocating for a larger role on human rights, including as a priority for peacekeeping operations, is an official of the very same government actively seeking to reduce those operations.  This highlights part of the obligation to truth-telling in the international community that offices like ours scrutinize and that lurks beyond the province of our carefully-crafted narratives – not just the truth that serves national interests, but the truth that reflects the general interest; the truth that is beholden to the full picture not simply the corner of the canvas that reinforces our national or organizational aesthetic.